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The NBA playoffs at long last are here. Even though teams dealt with waves of the coronavirus, this was the most normal season the NBA has had in three years. It was the first full 82-game season since the 2018-19 campaign.
The season has also given rise to the most wide-open championship race the league has seen in some time. Playoff seedings came down to the final day of the season, and there’s no clear-cut favorite in either conference.
Nearly every postseason team has at some point looked like a potential threat to win a ring. The Golden State Warriors are seeking to recapture their former glory, with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on the court in the playoffs for the first time since 2019. The Brooklyn Nets will try to salvage their superteam construction behind Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are trying to build a dynasty of their own with a repeat championship, while other teams, like the Boston Celtics and the Memphis Grizzlies, are hoping the next generation of stars will take them to the top.
There are many opportunities for redemption at stake, too. Joel Embiid, James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers will try to put years of playoff failures behind them. Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, is chasing his first championship ring, with the Phoenix Suns, after coming tantalizingly close last year.
One notable absence: LeBron James will be watching the playoffs from home after the Los Angeles Lakers finished with the 11th-best record in the Western Conference.
Here’s a look at the first-round matchups.
No. 1 Miami Heat vs. No. 8 Atlanta Hawks
The Heat are spicy. They bicker. They challenge one other. They even come close to fisticuffs in full public view, as evidenced by Jimmy Butler’s blowup last month in a home loss to Golden State. But they have somehow survived all the drama to emerge as the top seed in the East, and they have a much more complete roster than they did last season, when the Bucks swept them in the first round of the playoffs.
Fortified at the point by the addition of Kyle Lowry, the Heat have a terrific bench led by Tyler Herro, the presumptive favorite for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. And Victor Oladipo, after missing most of the year, scored 40 points in the team’s regular-season finale, proving he could be an X factor in the postseason.
As for Butler, well, he might need to shoot better than 23.3% from 3-point range in the playoffs. But he is fully capable of elevating his play — who can forget his tour de force when the Heat made their bubble run to the NBA Finals in 2020? — and he is a ferocious defender.
The Hawks secured the eighth seed by defeating the Charlotte Hornets and the Cavaliers in the play-in tournament, and Trae Young is a terrific scorer. But they likely lack the firepower to compete with the Heat in a seven-game series. — SCOTT CACCIOLA
No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 7 Brooklyn Nets
Not so long ago, the Celtics were not a very good team. Consider the scene in late January, when a home loss to Portland dropped Boston’s record to 23-24, providing fans and pundits alike with enough evidence to question whether it was time to dismantle the team’s young core: Could Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, two of the top young players in the league, form the right sort of chemistry to lead the Celtics on a deep playoff run? At the time, merely advancing to the postseason seemed uncertain.
Since then, though, Tatum and Brown, along with the rest of the team’s upstart cast, have silenced their critics in a big way. The Celtics closed the regular season by going 28-7 over their final 35 games, emerging as the NBA’s hottest team in Ime Udoka’s first season as head coach. They defend and score, scrap and hustle.
They will surely need to do all of those things against the Nets, whose roller-coaster season could have been an installation on Coney Island. But while Kyrie Irving will be able to play in home games after New York City relaxed vaccination rules, and Kevin Durant remains the most dynamic scorer on the planet, the Celtics have been far more consistent in recent weeks — and their top-ranked defense, even absent the injured Robert Williams, their shot-swatting center, will present a stiff challenge. The Celtics, after a rough start, appear ready for the playoffs. — SCOTT CACCIOLA
No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 6 Chicago Bulls
Milwaukee and Chicago met opposite fates as the season closed, with the Bucks going 15-7 after the All-Star break while the Bulls went 8-15.
The Bulls have been hindered by injuries and coronavirus infections. Point guard Lonzo Ball has been out since January with a knee injury; Patrick Williams, a second-year forward, missed nearly five months; and guard Alex Caruso missed 35 games with a foot injury and then a wrist injury.
One bright spot for the Bulls has been DeMar DeRozan, who joined the team in a free agency sign-and-trade from the Spurs last summer. In his 13th NBA season, DeRozan has averaged a career-high 27.9 points per game.
The Bucks are led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, a two-time league MVP. Antetokounmpo is scoring a career-high 29.9 points per game this season and has been strong against the Bulls, scoring 30 points in the teams’ first meeting and 34 in their second.
Milwaukee is also becoming healthier just in time for the playoffs. About a month ago, center Brook Lopez returned from a back injury that had sidelined him since the second game of the season.
The Bucks should be able to take advantage of their improving health and momentum heading into this series to beat the Bulls. — TANIA GANGULI
No. 4 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 5 Toronto Raptors
The last time these teams faced off in the postseason, Kawhi Leonard broke the Sixers’ hearts by rimming in a Game 7 buzzer-beater to send Toronto to the Eastern Conference finals in 2019.
Leonard has since moved on to the Clippers, but Philadelphia will have a chance at some measure of revenge, led by center Joel Embiid, now one of the most dominant players in the NBA and a top contender for the MVP award.
An issue looming over this series: Matisse Thybulle, who is Philadelphia’s best defensive guard, will not be able to play in Toronto because he is not fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. It’s a crucial loss for Philadelphia because the Raptors are a perimeter-oriented team. Toronto’s best players — Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., and Scottie Barnes — can all handle the ball and break down defenses. Philadelphia will have to get creative to stop them.
The Raptors finished the season on a 14-4 run to overcome their slow start. Even with Embiid’s dominance, Philadelphia was not a top-10 offensive or defensive team, and it struggled with Embiid off the floor.
This brings us to James Harden, who forced his way to Philadelphia from the Nets midseason. On paper, Harden has played well in Philadelphia, with averages of 21 points and 10.5 assists a game. He’s averaging 8.9 free throw attempts per game. But his shooting has been poor (40.2% from the field; 32.6% from 3), and Harden has a history of postseason flops.
If the Sixers are to win, Embiid will need some help — and it’s Harden’s job to provide it. But this series has the largest upset potential of all the matchups. — SOPAN DEB
No. 1 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans
Phoenix has stormed through its schedule, determined to learn and grow from a 2020-21 campaign that ended with a loss to the Bucks in the Finals. The Suns went undefeated in November, 13-1 in January and 13-2 in March.
Their 64 wins this season set a franchise record.
Phoenix is led by 25-year-old shooting guard Devin Booker, who averaged a career-high 26.8 points per game this season, and 36-year-old point guard Chris Paul, who averaged 14.7 points and a league-best 10.8 assists.
Forward Mikal Bridges has a case to be the league’s defensive player of the year, and Monty Williams was named the National Basketball Coaches Association’s coach of the year for the second consecutive season.
The Suns are chasing the franchise’s first championship, and have supreme confidence they can get it — no matter the opponent.
They will face a New Orleans Pelicans team that carved an unlikely path into the playoffs, winning two games in the play-in tournament after finishing with the ninth-best record in the West.
At the trade deadline, the Pelicans acquired guard CJ McCollum, who had spent his whole career in Portland since being drafted in 2013. Since the All-Star break, the Pelicans have had the seventh-best record in the Western Conference. An upset here is unlikely, as the Suns’ talent and experience should overwhelm the Pelicans.
No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 7 Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves celebrated their victory in a play-in game Tuesday night as if they had just won the championship. And why not? This team had made the playoffs only once since 2004 before its win over the Clippers.
Minnesota’s reward is to face the fun and ascendant Grizzlies. The most remarkable fact about them: Their best player, Ja Morant, missed 25 games with injuries, but Memphis went 20-5 in those games. The Grizzlies tied their franchise record in wins this year at 56 behind the dynamic core of Morant, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr.
Morant blossomed into a distant MVP candidate this year, averaging 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game. But against Minnesota, he struggled: In four matchups, he averaged 20 points and shot only 33.8% from the field — his lowest percentage against any team this year. He will most likely be defended by pesky Timberwolves guard Patrick Beverley, who is known for getting under his opponents’ skin.
The Grizzlies also will have to contend with the three-headed offensive monster of Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards. Towns is one of the best shooting centers in NBA history, while Edwards is a relentless rim attacker with a penchant for hitting big shots.
This matchup will be a battle of speed. Both teams play among the fastest paces in the NBA and constantly look to push the ball. They split the season series with two wins apiece. But the Grizzlies have a more loaded roster and home-court advantage. Barring a scoring explosion from the Timberwolves’ top players, the Grizzlies should win this one. — SOPAN DEB
No. 3 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 6 Denver Nuggets
In this tossup series, many of the most intriguing questions have to do with availability: Will Stephen Curry be at something that approximates full strength for Golden State? Will Jamal Murray make a miraculous return for Denver?
After missing the final 12 games of the regular season with a sprained ligament and bone bruise in his left foot, Curry was back at practice for Golden State this week. Without him, the team was all over the map, losing a bunch before finding its footing to clinch the No. 3 seed with five straight wins. A full roster — complete with Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, three members of the team’s championship core — could wreak some postseason havoc for the first time since 2019.
Then again, doubt the Nuggets — and Nikola Jokic, their do-everything center and the league’s reigning MVP — at your peril. Denver won three of its four regular-season meetings with Golden State, and there is an outside chance that Murray, who has not played this season after undergoing knee surgery, could make an appearance. His return after such a long absence would most likely offer the team a psychological boost, if little else. Facing a title-tested team, the Nuggets might need all the help they can get. — SCOTT CACCIOLA
No. 4 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz
The Jazz have been contenders for several years, but they have struggled to break through. Despite having the best record in the West last season, they lost to the Clippers in the second round.
This season, they are heading into the playoffs under ominous circumstances. The Jazz went on a five-game losing streak in late March, with the final loss coming in a game in which they had once led the Clippers by 25 points. The streak also included a 14-point loss to the Mavericks.
Donovan Mitchell has led the team with 25.9 points per game, and Rudy Gobert, a perennial candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year award, has averaged 15.6 points, 14.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game.
The Mavericks remade their roster at the trade deadline, sending Kristaps Porzingis to the Washington Wizards in exchange for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans.
It seems to have worked. They surged late and finished the season by winning nine of their last 11 games.
Luka Doncic has been a big part of their success this season, averaging 28.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game.
Doncic’s status is in question after he strained his calf in the Mavericks’ final game of the regular season. Without Doncic’s injury, the Mavericks would have been the clear favorite here, but the Jazz might be able to turn their fortunes if Doncic’s injury persists. — TANIA GANGULI
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